Easy Guide To Green Building Materials

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Dip your toes into the world of green building materials, with this quick primer on the materials to look for and those to avoid when renovating.

Environmental author Ellen Tout is releasing a new book outlining hundreds of practical ways to help combat the climate crisis. Called How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint, in it, Ellen helps you to turn over a green leaf in every aspect of your life with this comprehensive guide.

Packed with practical, reliable and up-to-date advice about making achievable and sustainable changes, Ellen’s book shows how you can cut carbon in almost every aspect of your life. Whether it’s a simple change of habit or a forward-thinking home improvement project, you’ll find plenty of suggestions to help the environment.

Ellen has kindly let me share an excerpt from this book, outlining what your carbon footprint actually is. From there, Ellen shares some of the green building materials to consider the next time you are renovating your home. From wood to sustainable alternatives to cement and more, there are lots of low-carbon alternatives out there.

What Is A Carbon Footprint And How Do We Reduce It?

We’ve been hearing about carbon footprints for a while – in the news, at school and from scientists. The concept isn’t new but until recent years, your carbon footprint might not have felt so tangible. The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, COP events, Extinction Rebellion protests and IPCC reports, to name just a few examples, have shown that the climate crisis is a very real factor in our daily lives.

The fact that almost every area of human activity contributes to our carbon footprint might sound like an overwhelming problem. But this means that there is scope to reduce our footprint in every aspect of our lives. Every single little positive step each of us takes does make a difference – it has a ripple effect,
inspiring more people, sparking more small tweaks and adding up to real change.

The phrase carbon footprint may not be a new concept to you – but it’s not always easy to know where to start when trying to measure or reduce it. A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted as a direct or indirect result of an activity. Almost everything we do results in carbon emissions – from breathing to travelling, warming our homes or buying food.

Human and other forms of life impacting the environment by emitting carbon dioxide is a pattern as old as the hills. Life itself has always depended on and affected the planet’s carbon cycle. All organic matter contains carbon, and this is released and reabsorbed in a continuous flow. What’s new is the scale of the impact humans are having, and the imbalance it’s causing in the biosphere.

Introductory Guide to Green Building Materials

Flat lay of building materials and tools with a blue text box that reads introductory guide to green building materials

While businesses and those in power are starting to wake up, there are so many things we can each do as individuals to reduce our own carbon footprints.

When it comes to our homes, whether you’re doing a spot of DIY or commissioning a full-sided house or dream tiny home, try to minimise the energy that goes into making your building (its “embodied energy”) and use building materials and green products with a low carbon footprint.

Wood For Good

Substitute wood for other building materials where you can. Not only do trees absorb CO2, but, in its processing, wood has the lowest energy consumption and the lowest CO2 emissions of any common building material. It’s also a great insulator. Make sure to use reclaimed or sustainably produced timber.

On average, using a cubic metre (35 cubic feet) of wood generates 800kg (1,760lb) less CO2 than using the same volume of other building materials.

Avoid Cement

Producing 1 tonne (2,200lb) of cement releases around 700kg (1,500lb) of CO2 into the atmosphere. Cement production accounts for about 5% of man-made CO2 emissions.

Cement is one of the most energy-intensive products in the world. If you need to use cement or concrete, try Hemcrete® – a highly insulating, low-carbon alternative made from lime and hemp. Hemcrete® actually absorbs carbon – locking in 110kg (240lb) of CO2 per cubic metre.

Concrete can’t be penetrated by rainwater and can increase the build-up of surface water by 50%, contributing to flash flooding. Instead, choose shingle, pebbles, grass or paving with permeable edges for paths, driveways and outdoor socializing areas.

Share And Swap

Find or set up a local tool library to share things like power or gardening tools. Building materials can often be sourced from local community groups and places like Freecycle, leftover from other people’s building projects.

Green Your Roof

More and more people are creating “green roofs” by planting their roofs with vegetation. They provide excellent insulation. The plants absorb solar radiation, which stops them from entering the building – this is particularly desirable in cities, where the “heat island” effect can raise the local temperature by up to 10%.

Green roofs also reduce stormwater run-off and provide habitats for a broad range of plants and creatures. If a green roof on your house isn’t feasible, consider one for your shed, bike storage or garden shelter – there are heaps of clever green roof ideas for small gardens out there.


Make an art of salvaging. This is a great way to save money, keep valuable materials out of landfill and give your building project a unique character.

Eco-Friendly Insulation

A school in Sheffield, UK has been super-insulated – far beyond any official regulations – with 4,000 pairs of recycled jeans.

When it comes to financing eco-friendly building materials, it is worth asking if your local government has a green homes scheme or grant to help fund improvements to reduce your home’s carbon impact.

Thanks so much, Ellen! If this has given you inspiration on what green building materials to look for, then do look out for Ellen’s book for more practical ideas to apply to almost every aspect of your life. It’s on sale now, available at any good book retailer from Watkins / Penguin Random House Publishers Services.

Front cover of the book How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint by Ellen Tout.

And if you’re keen to make do and mend on your renovation project, you can see how I did just that by painting my UPVC door to avoid sending my door to landfill. It’s full of top tips I found out along the way.

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